Jazz in the General Music Classroom

A lot of young music students look upon America’s classical music in much the same way they do eating green vegetables. It might be good for them, but ultimately it’s “old folks” music, and they’ll be darned if they’re going to enjoy it, much less learn anything from it. MENC member and frequent contributor to the NAfME forums Christine Nowmos shows her kids how much fun learning with jazz can be.

“During January and February each year (leading up to African-American History Month), I have each grade focus on a different musician. We spend several weeks on the same musician or composer so that the students get to hear several pieces by the same person and ideally hear each piece more than once. With the younger students, I like to use story books where possible, and with the older students we do some compare/contrast activities. Also, it’s great just to put the music on and let the kids improvise movement or dance to the music.”

Here are the musicians and recordings I use:

  • Kindergarten – Louis Armstrong: 12th Street RagTiger RagHello DollySt. Louis BluesWhat  a Wonderful World. I also read aloud the book If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong and show the picture book that goes with the lyrics of What a Wonderful World as we listen. We also watch a YouTube video of him performing When the Saints Go Marching In. I talk about improvising with the kids and we do an activity where if I show a certain signal the kids tap the beat along with 12th St. Rag with rhythm sticks and on cue they can improvise their own rhythm or tapping pattern, then switch back between beat and improv on cue.
  • 1st Grade – Charlie Parker: Now’s the TimeConfirmationBarbadosCelerity (there is a great YouTube video of him playing this, one of very few video recordings of him!!), and a Parker/Gillespie recording of A Night in Tunisia. I also read the book Charlie Parker Played Bebop, which has funny lyrics that fit in with the rhythm of A Night in Tunisia (after the kids have heard the book a few times they can read along). Charlie Parker is great for younger kids because the music is so upbeat and the pieces are short (because they had to fit on 78 records!) which is good for short attention spans!
  • 2nd Grade – Ella Fitzgerald: Cottontail (with the Duke Ellington orchestra – a GREAT example of scat singing as the entire thing is scat!), It Don’t Mean a ThingA Tisket, A TasketSummertime (with Louis Armstrong – and I show a beautiful picture book illustrated by Dubose Heyward to go with the lyrics as we are listening), How High the Moon (we watch a YouTube video of her singing this song). Also, we read aloud over several weeks the book Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa.
  • 3rd Grade – Miles Davis: All Blues*, Four, Seven Steps to HeavenStuff, (we do a compare/contrast activity with Seven Steps to Heaven and Stuff – students compare styles, tempo, mood, instruments, etc.), and also watch a YouTube clip of one of his live “electric” concerts so the kids can hear some of his really “out” stuff where he used the trumpet more as sound effects rather than a melodic instrument. Also, I read aloud the bookLookin for Bird in the Big City, which is a story of how Miles went to New York as a young man to hear Charlie Parker play.
  • 4th Grade – John Coltrane: Giant Steps**, Mr. P.C. My Favorite Things, (we do a compare/contrast between Mr. P.C. and My Favorite Things), the beginning of Acknowledgement from A Love Supreme, and watch a YouTube video of Impressions with Eric Dolphy.

“We spend probably somewhere between 5 -12 minutes of each lesson listening to music by one of the musicians and talking about or reading stories about them as one segment of the lesson over a couple months,” says Nowmos. “The remainder of the lesson is spent on a variety of other songs, games, and activities that help the students meet musical skill and literacy objectives, not necessarily related to the listening selections. With all my grades I do try to do some activity with improvisation and explain how what we are doing is a much easier version of what great jazz performers do, and how what they do is much more difficult because they have ALL the notes to choose from.”

Christine Nowmos teaches general/vocal music to grades pre-K through 4 at the Mary S. Shoemaker School in Woodstown, N.J.

*All Blues from CD Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – Sony B000002ADT
**Giant Steps from CD Giant Steps by John Coltrane – Atlantic/Wea B000002I4S

–Nick Webb, December 14, 2010, © National Association for Music Education